A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why We Seem So Confused

A great source of wonderment is the apparent disinterest, unconcern or, most charitably, confusion of the American people on issues of monumental importance; things like being lied into (at least) 3 wars, shooting war as a ‘normal’ condition, economic inequities destroying the remaining democratic structures, a three tiered justice system and loss of constitutional protections, destructive human environmental impact and deteriorating social and political conditions worldwide.  How can it be in a world awash with information that so few people seem have put together a reasonably clear, Reality based, picture of our situation, and even fewer willing to speak out or to act? 

There are 4 explanations that come to mind: people are, in general, ignorant and stupid; people are so narrowly self-interested that they don’t notice these larger issues; somehow the issues themselves are difficult to grasp with the proper balance of simplicity and complexity; powerful forces are advantaged by the inaction of the people and, therefore, work to confuse the popular understanding and will.  

The first is always first, the immediate consequence of pique, but is belied by experience.  No, people are not stupid or ignorant, even though they often don’t fully appreciate what is happening around them, they are fully capable of doing so.  The second clearly plays a part: personal stresses narrow the view to immediate concerns.  The more the society needs broad vision, the more difficult it is to obtain.  I, for example, missed the entire Gulf War. 

The third is a major concern: the world has gotten very complicated. Compared with other animals the difference between the average human and an Einstein (or Hedy Lamarr) is minimal, but in a world of billions of people, a few thousand extraordinarily talented and hardworking humans have set a standard for understanding that most will not meet.  The world now must contend with the products of such people, from nuclear power to cellphones; they have even invented things that they themselves cannot understand. 

But the greatest inhibition to action on the part of the mass of American people is the lack of information that is believable – ‘actionable’ to use the intelligence community’s term. This is not because there is no information, it is because no bit of truth is allowed to enter the public discourse unchallenged.  In today’s world, telling truth always interferes with someone’s gain whether it is about the dangers of tobacco, the consequences of oil drilling and use of fossil fuels, heavy metals in paint, behaviors of a public official, that paper comes from trees or any of hundreds of other human activities. 

If people are asked to act in small ways, then the certainty required for action is relatively small. One need not be 90% confident that recycling plastic and aluminum cans is beneficial to do it; 60% or 70% will do.  But when asked to act in large ways, to do things that result in big changes and even danger, certainty approaching 100% is required, and for large numbers of people there are only 3 probabilities: 0%, 50% and 100% -- any doubt becomes neutrality and neutrality can easily become zero interest if the dangers of action are seen as significant. 

It has become SOP for the economic elite to vigorously attack any public presentation of information that might be conceived as damaging to their image or their economic activities.  This has taken the following model: products and services are advertised to be sold to the public, effectively associating status, sexuality and other aspects of self-image and emotional states with products where no natural or truthful relationship exists.  Tangentially, sometimes directly, the corporations are associated with these products and services.  Vast sums of money and millions of hours by some of the world’s most talented and creative people go into these efforts. 

The corporate ear is sensitive and attuned to the slightest ‘negative vibration,’ a veritable bat’s ear taking in every sound.  This is not superhuman or even particularly special.  Those who have been there, running their own business or climbing the corporate ladder, will recognize the truth in this.  A throw away comment in a news story sets the mind racing. A government agency is looking into the effects of a chemical in the water supply: public attention might mean a new rule for disposal; it would require the installation of filtering equipment, there would be paperwork and inspections; my time would be taken; my employees time would be taken; if I can spend a few hours and a few dollars now, weakening the effort, it might pay off big in the end.  Multiply this by millions of specific interests and the strength and focus of business action begins to be understandable. 

The huge advertising/PR infrastructure can turn its attentions immediately to overwhelm the intrusions of truth that might negatively impact economic goals.  A truth can exist in only very limited forms, it must be told as it is, and is therefore a stationary target.  The image-making infrastructure is not so limited; it can and will say anything that its focus-group research shows would have the desired affect.  If ‘the truth’ tries to adapt and respond, it is accused of shifting and remaking its story and thus being dishonest.  It is just too easy. 

A truth has to wait for its consequences to be unavoidable when it is faced with such a powerful and effective disinformation infrastructure.   Millions of people had to be sickened and killed by smoking; everyone came to know a smoker who was diminished, ill or dead.  By sheer attrition public neutrality shifted one person at a time based on personal experience toward certainty (anti-smoking PSAs played a role, but the receptive audience was being built by personal experience; it was a synergy).  And when given the opportunity to act in court, the public gave unprecedentedly huge damage settlements.  It became impossible for tobacco interests to fight back directly, but they are still there slugging away with lobbyists, with product placement money, with product designs directed at teens; they are bowed but not broken.  And the truth that the medical costs and human suffering from smoking are still astronomical has slipped from public view. 

The truths associated with the issues of economic inequity, environmental damage, unequal justice and war, if understood, would be damaging, even disabling, to those who are benefiting from these corporate based actions.  And they are being fought in the expected way, by flooding the information flow with disinformation.  People are confused and the confused cannot act.

Truth is difficult.  Humans have no inherent devices that can tell the truth from the lie; that skill requires a strong base of experience with functioning reality.  Science and epistemology have been perfecting processes of research and reason to make certain types of truth more accessible to judgment, but only some of what we need to know can be so handled.  Of course, when presented information depends on rejecting the best of science and the best of reasoning, then questioning its value would be warranted. 

The truth also has advantages, the greatest of which is that it is the Truth and will not go away.  This is, of course, a two edged sword.  It means that what is true will always prevail and that its prevailing may not always be in ways that we would choose. We might ignore climate truth, but we will not be able to ignore climate reality.  We might ignore economic truth, but soon will not be able to ignore inescapable economic servitude driven by regal levels of economic inequity. 

This is an intractable problem: we cannot easily know what is true, but what is true will ultimately act on us. 

Knowing what is true and knowing ahead of time is one expression of the most basic human adaptation, it is how a slow, weak unarmed mammal has survived and prospered beyond all reason.  It is something that we had better figure out how to get right this time around.  Knowing what is real is hard enough when we confront the ordinary flow of veridical information, but when a studied sophisticated effort is intentionally being made to confuse that effort, then the difficultly is greatly increased. 

I have yet to solve this – or perhaps better to say that I don’t know where to begin with this one.  But I can’t help but keep trying.   Perhaps the tobacco story has a clue.

The media sets the language that may be used.  The language used gives an impression of the view held.  But with the smoking issue people held more negative views of smoking and big tobacco than the language allowed to be generally expressed.  People simply did not know the way that their neighbors felt.  When the tobacco litigation opened those doors they became floodgates.  

At least one thing we can do is to struggle against the mealy-mouthed ‘Wolf Blitzer’ language of the media and try to say what we think in our own words.  We may be surprised at what those around us feel about these things if the door is opened even a crack.


Michael Dawson said...

Another gem, full of arresting insights and powerful observations.

Two thoughts:

1. The sheer form of our media militates against truth. Television is a poor medium for conveying facts and nuances, and it is also a mildly addictive substance. Hence, it's unshakable centrality to our overclass/society.

2. There almost has to be a huge tidal wave of bottom-up class rage waiting for its Surgeon General moment, don't you think? The overclass has enjoyed complete dictatorial fiat for 30+ years, with essentially no dissent to be heard in the fora most attend to. Of course, the advertising-sponsorship of the TV system may prove to be impermeable to Truth in this area...

James Keye said...


Thank you. I think that all forms of information exchange pale in the comparison to direct word to ear and action to eye. The full involvement invigorates the message; the mutual messages. There are so many ways that we have outdistanced our needs with the uninhibited application of our capacities. This is so easy to see in metaphor and so difficult to imagine in practice.